When we think of Margaret Olley we tend to picture colourful paintings of crowded interiors or bright clusters of blooms – still lifes that are cheerful, tame, and frankly just a little bit ‘chocolate box’ for contemporary tastes. Or we see her as Ben Quilty painted her just months before her death in 2011 at 88 years of age – living legend of the Australian art scene, mentor to a younger generation, generous art patron; a beloved (if somewhat eccentric) little old lady. And Margaret Olley was all of these things, but she was also so much more; more radical, more interesting. The Margaret Olley survey show at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) is subtitled A Generous Life, but it could just as easily have been called Margaret Olley: Rebel.
Margaret Olley was someone who went her own way. She was an astute business woman who supported herself through both her art and her investments in property. She never married and never had children. These lifestyle choices remain unusual even today, let alone for a woman born in 1923. Add this to the fact that Sam Hughes, the man who she described as her ‘great love,’ and the only one she ever lived with, was bisexual, and we start to see just how little Olley cared for social conventions.
“Sam was bisexual, but that didn’t worry me. I take things as they are,” Olley said in a 2005 interview with Janet Hawley for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend.
Olley’s independent spirit seemed to have manifested early. Born in Lismore, New South Wales, she lived in Brisbane from the age of 12; a high school friend there described her to Olley’s biographer Meg Stewart as “always rushing around, quite rebellious, doing her own thing.” In 1940, Olley left school without sitting her final exams. Nevertheless, she pursued art at Brisbane Central Technical College, but she soon became frustrated there too and in 1943 she moved to Sydney and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) where she eventually graduated with first class honours.
In Sydney, Olley formed lasting relationships with other artists, including Donald Friend, whom she proposed marriage to (despite or perhaps because of the fact that he was gay), and Anne Wienholt, whose generosity enabled Olley to travel to Europe in 1949. As Michael Hawker, curator of A Generous Life puts it in his catalogue essay, “Olley had a great capacity for friendship, not only with other artists—with whom she made many convivial sketching and painting excursions—but also with supporters and dealers… These lifelong friendships were strengthened by a process of exchange and mutual recognition.”
In fact, according to Hawker, Olley was something of a muse, and the exhibition includes portraits of her (or paintings inspired by her) by a range of significant Australian artists including Russell Drysdale, Ian Fairweather and Jeffrey Smart. In 1948, William Dobell won the Archibald Prize with his portrait Margaret Olley, which, Hawker says, “made Olley an unwilling art world celebrity.”
But by the early 1960s, Olley was an art star in her own right. Her 1962 solo show at Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane sold out, and The Courier-Mail ran the headline, “Margaret Olley Top Woman Painter”. Between 1962 and 1965 she won nine prizes, and the notion that she was a national treasure (an accolade made official in 1997) began to take shape. In 1991, she was awarded an Order of Australia (AO) for her service to the nation as an artist and promotor of art, in 2006 she was given the highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
During the 1980s, she began making bequests and significant donations to public collections to the value of some $7 million dollars. Several of the works she donated, including pieces by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Giorgio Morandi, Pablo Picasso and Édouard Vuillard, are featured in the QAGOMA show. A generous life indeed.
Margaret Olley’s long life was extraordinary by any measure. What makes it even more so is that she struggled with, and overcame, alcoholism and depression, was open about both, and throughout it all continued to create. As Hawker explains, “Although it had highs and lows, painting was at the very core of Olley’s purpose and existence: her life’s direction was guided by this lodestone.”